The revelation that Daniel Ricciardo’s Bahrain Grand Prix was compromised by significant floor damage suffered early on puts an asterisk against his first intra-McLaren battle with new Formula 1 team-mate Lando Norris.
That Ricciardo was hamstrung from the first lap of the restarted race post-safety car means it’s slightly unfair to judge his performance against Norris, who finished three places ahead in fourth and was almost a pitstop time clear by the end.
Ricciardo joked post-race he would sleep easier if the team discovered damage, so presumably he has been.
Banking an early win against Ricciardo was a nice boost for Norris, so it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see Norris’s critics use the subsequent news of damage from the Pierre Gasly clash as a ‘well, let’s see what happens when Ricciardo doesn’t have a broken car’.
Norris starts the 2021 season knowing that Ricciardo is an upgrade on his predecessor Carlos Sainz Jr. Alongside Sainz, Norris showed flashes of prodigious ability and played a key role in McLaren’s fourth- and third-place finishes in the constructors’ championship.
But he was also shaded by the Spaniard over the balance of the season and that has led some to believe Norris isn’t quite the megastar-in-the-making that the likes of Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc or George Russell made themselves look early in their F1 careers.
Norris needed to make a step in 2021 and had talked about that many times at the end of last season and over the winter.
Bahrain was never going to be decisive to the Norris-Ricciardo power dynamic because judging the pair was only going to be fair once Ricciardo had settled in and the pecking order had been established.
But we can still judge Norris’s first race of an important season in its own right, and it was very good. “Brilliant”, said McLaren team boss Andreas Seidl. So it might not be the crushing defeat of his highly-rated new team-mate as it first appeared on Sunday. Yet it was still an excellent drive.
McLaren’s slight qualifying deficit meant Norris started behind two midfield cars and one place ahead of Ricciardo, who he briefly fell behind, had to re-pass and then fend off during a brilliant side-by-side scrap that took half a lap to settle.
That in itself was a small statement of intent. Norris gambled on Ricciardo being boxed in on the inside at Turn 4 to drive around the outside of his team-mate, then gave him enough racing room through the sweeps of 6 and 7, the hairpin at 8 and the devilishly tricky Turn 9-10 lefts.
He judged that perfectly, avoiding any contact without giving Ricciardo an advantage that let him retake the place.
That set up Norris’s entire race. He pinched fifth from Gasly at Turn 4 after the restart when the AlphaTauri locked up defending the inside, and overtook Leclerc’s Ferrari on merit. That was a move set up and completed in a straight fight.
“The strongest bit was the overtakes in the beginning, getting past Daniel and Pierre, and a few laps later, getting past Charles – more from a pace perspective rather than first lap battling,” says Norris.
“After then, I could just look after the tyres and control the pace a lot, which is a nice thing to have at this track.
“From then on, it was a quite straightforward and easy, lonely race, just looking after things and not having to push too hard.”
That undersells the job because at places where track position is king, the significance of early moves like Norris’s – and the pace thereafter to remain protected against an undercut – is massive.
Norris had no eye-popping moments after the second lap of racing, so his highlights reel from the grand prix’s probably not the most exciting. But often that can be the sign of an excellent performance.
Another indication of Norris’s performance is he is the only midfield driver not caught and passed by the recovering Red Bull of Sergio Perez. It’s a testament to that early work and the pace through the remainder of the grand prix that Norris kept himself out of reach of Perez’s charge from the pitlane.
“Lando did a brilliant race, he had it under control at every stage of the race,” says Seidl.
“He pushed when he had to push, he managed his tyres when he had to manage them in order to make sure there was enough left in case Perez would have come closer at the end of the race.”
Norris started last season in top form as well, performing last-lap heroics at the first two grands prix to steal a podium in the season opener then fifth in the second race. He didn’t score another podium in 2020 so in that regard, last season Norris literally peaked too soon.
If he doesn’t maintain this level of form through what looks to be a very long and challenging 2021 season, that will feed those who doubt Norris’s ability to establish himself among F1’s best drivers, or believe he will be exposed alongside Ricciardo.
But Norris has started the season setting the standard for the blend of racecraft and speed he’ll need for the rest of the year. That’s the case irrespective of Ricciardo’s damage, which doesn’t detract from the elements of Norris’s own race that made his drive “brilliant”.